Celtic (language)

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This page forms part of an etymology course that gives an outline of the development of English. It is written in a sequence that you may want to follow. The best place to start, if you want to follow the whole course, is Etymology course, or, if you are only interested in English, Development of English. You may also arrive at any of these articles from other links. For more information about the history of English, you should of course read a good history of the language, such as Baugh (1993), Strang (1970), or Crystal (2005)

Celtic (pronounced 'Keltic' - see Celt - celt - Celtic) - is a language family. The Celts were a people who migrated into Europe from about the 5th century BCE, coming (as Gauls) to be a dominant people in what is now France (the Romans called it Transalpine Gaul), Northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul) and generally through northern Europe. The most we can tell about their language at that date is the reconstructed version we know as Proto-Celtic or Common Celtic. This has since diverged into several separate families, with many members, of which many are now no longer spoken, and few are in good health and growing: virtually no-one these days acquires a Celtic language as their first language.

Current Celtic families may be divided two groups, continental Celtic and insular Celtic. The Celtic languages spoken in the British Isles (and Brittany, in north-west France) are members of the latter group. It is insular Celtic that had the greatest effect on the English language; and it was not a great effect. Considering that the inhabitants of these islands (the Britons) when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived were Celts, it is astonishing how few words from their languages (and those of their relatives) have entered ours. One word is significant in suggesting the period of conflict. Wales (a country largely inhabited by Celtic people) is derived from the Old English wealh, which meant 'foreigner'. (A 'walnut', with the same etymology, was originally 'the Italian, or Roman, nut': walnuts are not native to Britain, where a 'nut' is the native hazel. In Romance languages, the equivalent word (the default word for that kind of fruit) means the walnut.) The British were driven from their own land by foreigners, who then called them 'foreign'.

  • Wales and Welsh are cognate with Walloon, the name of the French-speaking comminity of Belgium "‘speaking a Romance language, especially French’" (OED 2021), as opposed to the other major group in Belgium, the Flemings, speaking the Germanic language, Dutch.

Insular Celtic divides into two large groups, Goidelic Celtic, or Q-Celtic, and Brythonic (sometimes written Brittonic) Celtic, or P-Celtic (the 'P-' and 'Q-' refer to a characteristic sound-change). The current languages include (thanks to modern education, there are no monoglot speakers of any of these alive):

  • Brythonic Celtic:
    • Welsh, spoken in Wales, where in 2004 21.5% of the population were said to be Welsh-speakers
    • Breton, spoken in Brittany, in France. It is said to be the everyday language of half a million people.
    • Cornish, spoken in Cornwall (etymologically, Cornwall = 'The Welsh[-speaking] corner of land'). Cornish became extinct around the end of the nineteenth century, and is now only spoken in valiant attempts to revive it as an artificial language.
      • The dead language Cumbric was close to Welsh, and was spoken in parts of southern Scotland and north-west English (including the modern county of Cumbria, as well as the extinct country of Strathclyde) until around the end of the first millennium CE.
  • Goidelic Celtic ('Goidelic' comes from the Gaelic form of 'Gael', and all these languages call themselves by some form of this word):
    • Irish (sometimes called 'Erse'). About 40.9% of the population of Eire are 'competent in Irish'.
    • (Scots) Gaelic. The language of the Scottish Highlands. Only about 1.2% of the population of Scotland speak Gaelic. It should not be confused with the Scots (language), which is the descendant of Old English native to the lowlands of Scotland (roughly, the southern half).
    • Manx, spoken in the Isle of Man. Though all speakers nowadays learn Manx as a second language, 2.2% of the population of the Isle of Man claim to 'have knowledge of' it.
  • Dead Celtic languages include
    • Pictish, a language or group of languages spoken in Scotland, mostly north of the Clyde and Forth, until the Irish Gaels founded the kingdom of Dál Riata (Dalriada), and in the east thereafter.
    • proto-Celtic
    • British, a language which is the origin of the Brythonic group, as well as of the word itself. It was spoken long after the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England and lowland Scotland in the Celtic kingdoms of StrathClyde, Cumbria and Elmet, as well as in the principality of Wales, including Gwyneth and Powys. British is the ancestor of modern Welsh. (Note that etymologically, the word Cumbria (now the name of the county where the Lake District is situated) and Cambria, a formal term for Wales, are from the same source: the Welsh word for their country, Cymru.)

Most of the information on this page has been drawn from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.